Myself That I Remake

Spiritual Renewal in the Life and Work of William Butler Yeats


section 2: Spiritual Renewal Through Creation


The theme of renewal is the most constant thread connecting the many facets of Yeats’s life and his work. He wanted to renew for his country what he imagined as the lost mystical freedoms of Celtic antiquity. He wanted to renew the Irish theatre, to revitalize its sense of ritual and save it from the artistic death of becoming light entertainment. Most of all Yeats wanted to renew himself, the better to serve his country, his art, and his own soul. Defending the infinite pains of composition and revision poetry cost him, he wrote:

The friends that have I do it wrong

Whenever I remake a song,

Should know what issue is at stake:

It is myself that I remake.

   His program of spiritual renewal was a concerted effort on several fronts; he adopted the role of Maker in order to remake not only himself but also his art and his religion. Like Joyce, Yeats wanted to forge the spirit of Ireland in the smithy of his soul, but unlike Joyce he could never satisfy himself that his own soul was itself ready for the task. In his autobiography he wrote that “all life weighed in the scales of my own life seems a preparation for something that never happens.” In fact plenty was happening — Yeats was continually remaking himself.


Making His Personality

In an address to the British Association in 1908, Yeats outlined his belief that artists

are Adams of a different Eden, a more terrible Eden perhaps, for we must name and number the passions and motives of men. There, too, everything must be known, everything understood, everything expressed; there, also, there is nothing uncommon, nothing unclean; every motive must be followed through all the obscure mystery of its logic. Mankind must be seen and understood in every possible circumstance, in every conceivable situation.

Yeats viewed his own life as a paradigm, an experiment in the shaping of humanity, and his own experience was everything to him. “We can know nothing,” he said, quoting Vico, “that we have not made.”

   His conception of the self and the anti-self became less and less passive as time went on, and grew into his famous theory of the mask. Essentially, the theory posits that no man can be fully himself until he makes himself fully his own opposite, and through the tension created he can realize his own nature. “I think that all happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other self; that all joyous or creative life is a rebirth as something not oneself, something which has no memory and is created in a moment and perpetually renewed.” In The Player Queen Septimus claims, “Man is nothing till he is united to an image.” Yeats embraced the theatrical life precisely because it was so antithetical to his shy, dreamy nature. It may be that his plays suffer somewhat from bearing such a heavy load of spiritual doctrine; drama became for Yeats an exercise in applied morality:

Active virtue as distinguished from the passive acceptance of a current code is therefore theatrical, consciously dramatic, the wearing of a mask. It is the condition of an arduous full life.

   Probably such an extremely self-conscious notion of the creative self is better suited to the printed page, but without Yeats the self-created dramatist there could have been no Yeats the natural lyric poet. The maker had to bring himself to a state “full of uncertainly, not knowing when I am the finger, when the clay.”


Making His Art

To Yeats art was nothing less than “an endeavor to condense as out of the flying vapour of the world an image of human perfection, and for its own and not for the art’s sake.” Ultimately, Yeats believed, it was the artist, not the priest or the politician, who is charged with perfecting not only his own soul but that of the entire race as well. In his valedictory poem, “Under Ben Bulben,” Yeats admonishes “poet and sculptor” to

Bring the soul of man to God,

Make him fill the cradles right.

   How can art perform such a miracle? Yeats believed that art exists out of time, and therefore beyond the march of mortality, and that the greater the struggle between the world and the dream embodied in art, the greater the transcendence of the soul in the art. “The end of art is ecstasy,” he wrote, “and that cannot come without pain.” It is precisely this transcendence that is yearned for in “Sailing to Byzantium.”

0 sages standing in God’s holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing masters of my soul.

These “sages” are artist/priests, they are purified souls, they are self-begetting images of God. And in creating the poem Yeats in some ineffable way becomes his own soul’s singing master, the creator of the “artifice of eternity,” and releases himself, at least momentarily, from the grip of time. He imagines himself as pure immortal artifice, a golden bird set upon Frazer’s golden bough to sing “of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

   Yeats had a deep and abiding faith in the connection between art and immortality. Among his “First Principles” was the conviction that:

Every argument carries us backwards to some religious conception, and in the end the creative energy of men depends upon their believing that they have, within themselves, something immortal and imperishable, and that all else is but an image in a looking glass.

The artist is the creator not of things but of feelings, unburdened by perishable flesh, and these feelings are of the same ethereal substance as the soul, and God. When Yeats writes of the intensity of life he refers to the life of feelings, passions, and dreams, in which all spiritual things are united.


Making His Religion

Yeats insisted that “no man can create, as did Shakespeare, Homer, Sophocles, who does not believe, with all his blood and nerve, that man’s soul is immortal.” Throughout his life he underscored the connection between his ideas on art and those on metaphysics. In his autobiography he wrote that in his youth,

I had made a new religion, almost an infallible Church of poetic tradition, of a fardel of stories, and of personages, and of emotions, inseparable from their first expression, passed on from generation to generation by poets and painters with some help from philosophers and theologians.

It is characteristic that he makes poets the prophets of religious revelation, and leaves the “philosophers and theologians” with a minor role. His message “To Ireland in the Coming Times” had promised:

. . . to him who ponders well,

My rhymes more than their rhyming tell

Of things discovered in the deep

Where only body’s laid asleep.

Twenty-seven years later, in “All Soul’s Night,” he still presented himself as the voice from beyond death:

No living man can drink from the whole wine.

I have mummy truths to tell

Whereat the living mock. . . .

By the time he wrote “All Soul’s Night” he was no longer groping the darkness as in “Who Goes with Fergus?”; now he had a definite system, hammered together from his “fardel” of learning and especially from the “instructors” who communicated with him through his wife’s automatic writing.

   One of the central tenets of the Yeatsian faith was the doctrine of reincarnation, or the “obligatory pilgrimage of every Soul through the Cycle of Incarnation in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic law,” as Madame Blavatsky had taught him years before. Between death and subsequent rebirth we return to the source of all life, all passion, all knowledge:

But when,. if the tale’s true,

The Pestle of the moon

That pounds up all anew

Brings me to birth again —

To find what once I had

And know what once I have known. . . .

In Yeats’s system the soul travels from one rebirth to another according to the Great Wheel of the Phases of the Moon, through twenty-six human and two supernatural incarnations which give each individual a set of characteristic tendencies, and we go through the cycle over and over again for thousands of years before we can arrive at the point of spiritual perfection (as Nirvana or “enlightenment” in Buddhism) in which all points merge, free will and destiny, choice and chance, self and mask. The soul ceases to exist in any comprehensible way when its animating tensions are resolved. “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” confronts the soul’s desire to escape the Great Wheel with the self’s love for life and its own desire to accept human existence:

My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair;

Set all your mind upon the steep ascent . . .

Fix every wandering thought upon

That quarter where all thought is done:

Who can distinguish darkness from the soul?

The scales tip one way and then the other, but eventually the self accepts with joy the prospect of return:

Myself. What matter if I live it all once more?

. . . And what’s the good of an escape

If honour find him in the wintry blast?

I am content to live it all again

And yet again. . . .

It would seem here that Yeats has definitely surrendered the hope for enlightenment in this lifetime, but the subtle rub is that such surrender is itself a precondition for enlightenment.

   Yeats more than any other writer cultivates this hazy middle way between heaven and earth. In his early verse he is beckoned by the ancient Celtic faeries:

And Niamh calling Away, come away:

Empty your heart of its mortal dream.

Years later in “Byzantium” Yeats re-entered this ephemeral twilight between mortality and non-existence, “death-in-life and life-in-death.” Byzantium is the perfect home for Yeats’s dreams. It combines an infinite hauteur towards the vulgarity of the flesh:

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains

All that man is,

All mere complexities,

The fury and the mire of human veins,

with the self-begetting spirit riding “astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood.” Yeats’s Byzantium is the very source of universal spirit, and a very Yeatsian resolution to the perplexing dichotomy of rebirth and Nirvana. Here he can inhabit a twilit zone empty of either free will or predestination.

   “Byzantium” is a rare escape from the torment of decision for Yeats. “The Choice” is more typical:

The intellect of man is forced to choose

Perfection of the life, or of the work.

. . . the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

The key word here is “intellect”; Yeats understood all too well that the soul is beyond any imperatives, but his intellect which understood this could never remain silent or still. The intellect’s eternal garrulousness hides the self’s terror of surrender, and Yeats’s massive output attests to a mind that could never satisfy itself with silence.

Be silent and exult,

Because of all things known

That is the most difficult.

The system of A Vision is extraordinarily elaborate in establishing the relationship between free will and predestination. The “thirteenth cone,” sometimes referred to as “freedom” and again as “God,” is the fulcrum, the point at which all things balance, but balance is a static concept and Yeats was never the poet of stasis. He remains as gingerly vague about the prospect of an end of decisions as he is about decisions themselves.

Chance being at one with Choice at last,

All that the brigand apple brought

And this foul world were dead at last.

   Still, whatever the consequences, Yeats never abandoned his yearning to unite his soul with the ultimate, which he was increasingly willing to call “God” as he grew older. In A Trembling of the Veil Yeats recalls a voice he had once heard within himself upon awakening: “The love of God is infinite for every human soul because every human soul is unique; no other can satisfy the same need in God.” Certainly Yeats’s conception of God was unorthodox; his renegade monk Ribh declares that “hatred of God may bring the soul to God,” hoping to clear his mind of any imaginable concept, since no such concept could be God.

   On the whole, though, Yeats envied many of the trappings of traditional religion, especially the mysteries veiled in ritual. In the first draft of his autobiography he wrote,

An obsession more constant than anything but my love itself was the need of mystical rites — a ritual system of evocation and meditation — to reunite the perception of the spirit, of the divine, with natural beauty.

Similarly he claimed that “a simple round of religious duties, things that escape the intellect, is often so much better than its substitute, self-improvement,” and in a letter, “I always feel that my work is not drama but the ritual of a lost faith.” In ritual the soul can escape decision-making, hatred and knowledge, all the things of the intellect. In ritual Yeats could allow himself the surrender normally so difficult, and thereby return to the innocence of first things:

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,

The soul recovers radical innocence

And learns at last that it is self-delighting,

Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,

And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.

How but in custom and in ceremony

Are innocence and beauty born?


© Michael Fleming

Oxford, England

March, 1984


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